Filicide, or murder of children by their biological parents, have continued to disgust and mystify society since time immemorial. It is prevalent in all countries and social classes, yet never ceases to shock people. While homicide is perpetrated predominantly by males, it has been found that there are equal numbers of women involved in filicide. Mothers most often kill young children, and fathers do away with the older. Studies have revealed that children under six months of age are at worst risk. The risk again rises once they reach adulthood.
Reasons for Filicide
The main reasons ascribed by researchers are altruistic, psychotic, accidental, spousal revenge and unwanted child.
Altruistic filicide (to relieve a child of suffering) is committed out of love, unwanted child filicide is caused in case of illegitimacy or uncertain paternity. Spousal revenge filicide takes place mostly in cases of spousal infidelity; while in psychotic filicide parents kill under the influence of severe mental illness.
Exact number of gender differences in filicide is not clearly established. Paternal filicide is found to be associated with lower rate of mental illness than maternal filicide. Among men altruism is not the main cause of killing. It is mostly associated with sudden emotional outbursts or severe disciplinary measures.
Mothers who committed filicide were more found to be frequently married, compared with neonaticidal mothers, and had a high frequency of unemployment, alcohol use, and personal history of abuse.
Filicide associated with suicide
Filicide associated with suicide is a sub-category of altruistic filicide, wherein parents decide that they cannot leave their children behind when they die. They kill the child and themselves to ease the victim’s sufferings, real or imagined.
Motive vs. Impulse to Kill
The first and the most comprehensive study on filicide was conducted by Resnick in 1969-70. Resnick delved into case reports of filicides from 1751 to 1967 to analyze the apparent motives for the act.
Ascribing a motive to the killing of one’s own children has been found to be problematic due to the vulnerability of the offenders in view of possible criminal proceedings. Another research by Scott in 1973 introduced the ‘impulse to kill’ theory, which he felt was more objective than motive.
Data shows that mothers commit most murders of children under the age of 12. For this reason most classification systems focus on the mothers. There is little research on large samples of fathers who kill their children.
A researcher D’Orban conducted an extensive study on 89 women who were in prison under charges of murder or attempted murder of their children and classified them under the following six categories:
- battering mothers
- mentally ill
- retaliating women
- women with unwanted children
- mercy killing
Neonaticide: A Mother’s Crime
Neonaticide, homicide of an infant within 24 hours after birth,is a special classification because it forms the largest group. It is also primarily a mother’s crime. Neonaticide is normally committed by younger mothers, mostly unmarried and coming from poor families. These women do not go for abortion and either conceal or do not acknowledge their pregnancies. They are different from women who go for abortion in respect of not being aware of the consequences of their pregnancy as their decisions are mostly based on denials and dissociations.
This is the second largest group. These are mostly unintentional deaths caused by child abuse. The killings are brought about by sudden bursts of temper and there is no impulse to kill. Studies have found such women to be suffering from high degrees of marital, family or financial stress.
Mentally Ill Filicide
This is the third most common and most complex kind of filicide. The mental state and suffering of the offenders are of such extreme nature that they begin to perceive filicide as rational. These women were found to be older, under less social, marital or financial stress than those committing accidental filicide, and their children are also older.
Studies have found very deep psychiatric disorders in such women. Resnick in his study diagnosed such mothers with schizophrenia, melancholia, manic depressive disorders, and character disorders. More recent literature also mentions postpartum illnesses and psychoses among prominent diagnoses.
Research has found that a mother who commits filicide is most likely not living with the father, is young and has little income or education. One out of three times she was abused as a child. The majority of time she has been treated or medicated for a mental condition. Two out of three times she is mentally ill at the time.
Recent studies have shown that 75 percent of parents who committed filicide had previous psychiatric problems and 40 percent had consulted a psychiatrist at some point before committing the crime.
Men committing filicide are found to have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, previous criminal records, and very high levels of environmental stress. Before murdering, most of them would have records of injuring the child at some points of time. In complete contrast to women offenders, men often see their children as threats. Other factors causing stress among men are separation from their wives or extra-marital relations which pose as additional risks for children.
Methods of Filicide
There are also contrasting methods adopted by men and women. Mothers do not use weapons, nor do they commit the act in states of intoxication. Manual battering, suffocation and drowning are some of the methods used by them. Fathers use methods like striking, squeezing or stabbing and are prone to use weapons.
- Filicidal Mothers and the Impact of Psychosis on Maternal Filicide
- Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide